Gazing Into the Abyss

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.—Friedrich Nietzsche

Morose Delectation

Mack Sennett Bathing Beauties

Certain stylistic differences separate us from our ancestors; but every once in a while, we can see people from eighty or a hundred years ago as if they were alive today. That was brought home to me at Cinecon today, when I saw a rare reel of Mack Sennett Bathing Beauties outtakes shot at nearby Venice Beach.

The scene was that the director had the girls run into the ocean. Evidently, the water was too cold for them, and they pleaded with the director off-screen to let them get used to the cold. Suddenly, the outlandish bathing costumes of a century ago and the stupid ringlets that the girls curled their hair into didn’t matter any more. In every other way, the scene could have been shot yesterday; and the girls were cute and rather appealing.

On Saturday morning, I saw a 1930 Fox Movietone newsreel of a stage rehearsal of a troupe of chorus girls entitled Backstage on Broadway. Again, once you looked past the inevitable blonde ringlets, the girls were incredibly beautiful, with gams that most of today’s women would kill for.

It is sad to think that virtually all of these girls are now dead. We snicker at minor details that divide their time from ours, and which place a spurious distance between us and them. No doubt their slang was outrageously different; and their everyday beliefs were probably more puritanical (though that’s hard to know for sure). In the Mack Sennett film, the bathing beauties were probably seen as brazen women, and the very large and appreciative male crowd along the Boardwalk lent credence to that that guess.

One of the poster dealers at the Cinecon show had a nude frontal body shot of the lovely Louise Brooks, whose dark bangs make her sexy even today. But, alas, she was found dead in her house from a heart attack after years of suffering from emphysema and arthritis. Mabel Normand, the most famous of Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties, died of tuberculosis in a sanatorium in 1930.

I suppose it’s dangerous to fall in love with ghosts. And yet the Lloyd E. Rigler Theater of the Egyptian Theater was filled with aging film fans, some of them in wheelchairs, whose eyes lit up at memories of their youth and of the women who made their lives seem worthwhile. Now they themselves are slowly vanishing into the past. New generations will take their place with dreams of tattooed and pierced young women in the outlandish costumes of Hollywood nightclubs.

Just remember: The outlandishness doesn’t count. They’re just people like us.